How I escaped a life of grind

Looking back

Sitting here today with two successful careers behind me and another in progress it’s easy to forget that life wasn’t always so rosy.

In this post I will be writing about the shock of moving from the nice comfortable world of education to the rather less forgiving world at work.

School – the good old days?

At school I had real status as the football playing uber-geek, excelling at science and maths while also playing football for the school first team.

At this time I had credibility with the teachers, winning the chemistry prize three years in a row, while earning the respect of my peers by playing for the football first team a year ahead of schedule.

Surely, I thoughts, with a record like that any employer would see my value and promote me accordingly. As we will see, it didn’t quite work out like that.

Early frustrations

My first proper full time job was as a trainee laboratory technician with Anglian Water.

When I started work with them I was constantly frustrated by bosses and colleagues who seemed happy to accept the status quo.

With the benefit of hindsight I hadn’t really grasped the fact that work was different to being in education.

Equally I certainly didn’t understand the that supplying clean safe drinking water was all about steadiness and repetition, not cutting edge revolution.

It was probably the frustrations from this mismatch that led me into a 10 year period of racing motorcycles.

With little natural talent it was initially in exercise in humility, but as time passed I became a better rider.

Alongside this I developed the happy knack of making a nominally standard motorcycle lap a race track quicker than my fellow competitors.

The end result was serious fistful of race wins and two club championships. There was even talk of a fully sponsored ride for the 1990 season.

Sadly a confusion of ambition and capability while racing on the Isle of man in 1989 resulted in a high speed crash which I only survived thanks to the skills of the Marshals and paramedics.

After the crash I did dabble with racing for a while longer but eventually realised that I was only doing it to prove that I still could.

This is a very bad reason for doing anything never mind something as dangerous and expensive as motorcycle racing.

Having figured this out I stopped doing it. I never actually retired, I just didn’t do it any more.

This left the problem of what to do with all that racing energy that now had nowhere to go. I am told by those I worked with that I became a pain for a while, always wanting to change the world, often for no really good reason.

I felt trapped and all I could see was a life of performing routine tests and being hauled over the coals for getting them wrong.

A break, and my first great insight

My break happened when I listened to a successful executive speaking about her career. She put her success down to two ideas: taking responsibility for their own career and recognising that the only person they could change was themselves.

Yes, she acknowledged the need for technical skills and qualifications but these were in her opinion “just the cards that get you in the game”.

The final point she made was that you can’t force good things to happen but you can make it more likely that they will happen.

This was my first great insight – be great at your core job, no matter how boring and routine it is, and look for opportunities to shine.

As someone who prided themselves in their technical skills this was all a bit hard to take in, but ultimately she was the successful executive and I was the junior laboratory technician.

It took a while but eventually I accepted that the way to get on was to be follow the advice.

In my case this meant being great at my core job of laboratory quality control (don’t ask – it’s hideously boring) but also to look for opportunities to do a bit extra – find something that’s a problem and helping solve it.

Don’t talk about – just do it. The second great insight

Full of my great new ideas I went to see my boss who offered me this very short and to the point reply: “don’t tell me about it, just let me see you do it“.

However he did agree that if he saw a real improvement we would talk about new areas for me to explore at my next appraisal.

True to his word, when I knuckled down and did was I was supposed to be doing he did find me increasing amounts of project work to be get involved in.

I loved project work because it was all about solving a particular problem rather than just making sure that tomorrow happened, in water treatment terms, just like yesterday.

I greatly admire the individuals who can do the routine work, maintaining quality over long periods of time, but I had learned that is was not for me.

This was my second great insight – find out what you like doing and work towards it.

A-to-B is not a straight line. The third great insight

With a solid reputation as a quality control chemist and half a dozen successful projects under my belt I began to see one of the regular water company re-structures as an opportunity rather than a threat.

With a bit of good fortune, which is an important element in any career plan, I eventually exchanged the laboratory grind for an operational scientist role.

In did not help that I then lived in East Anglia and the job was 140 miles away in Grimsby. However my wife, to her eternal credit, agreed that if I was unhappy in the labs we had to make the move.

My third insight, apart from knowing that I had a wonderful wife, was that you can’t always get from A to B in a straight line.

If it works, keep doing it

Over the subsequent 20 or so years  I applied this model to each job I held: be great at the core job, find ways of adding value for your boss and colleagues, then and only then look for new opportunities.

I eventually left Anglian water to take up a contract position with the Isle of Man Water Authority before leaving the water industry totally two years later.

In my time with in the water industry I held eight major roles, each one a step up in some way.

I was also asked to work on three major secondments, one of which was with an international bid team in the Philippines.

This suggests that I was doing something right….

For those interested in money, the succession of promotions meant that I was earning over twice the national average by the end of this period.

If having a greater control over your working life is important I was for the most part making the decisions rather than responding to them.

For me both were good: the money enable me to do more of the things I was interested in outside work while the greater degree of control made work less stressful.

Not a bad combination.

Can it work for everyone?

Not everyone wants is able to move around or change jobs so regularly. However I believe that by adopting principles similar to mine any individual will be more satisfied with their work and will have more choices open.

This can especially important in times of change. After all, who would you keep on, the steady Eddy character or someone who goes out of their way to do that bit extra?

My company, Windmill Insight Solutions Ltd offers a range of services to help individuals and organisations find ways of working to these principles and reaping the rewards that will come from it.

Please feel free to have a look. It’s still work in progress but it will give a flavour of some of the options that are open to you.

A final insight?

I will leave you with a final thought. In 2002 I chose to leave the  water industry after 28 years for a time limited contract, something that would have been unthinkable to me back in those dark days grinding out a living in the laboratory.

While that is a story for another day I can tell you that the principles that served me so well in the water industry also worked in the world of skills development. Another useful insight, perhaps?

Did you find this post interesting? Would you like to say something about it? Please don’t hesitate to leave a comment or start a discussion.


Bob Windmill

6 thoughts on “How I escaped a life of grind

  1. Hi Stephen,

    I’m glad that you liked this post. If it has given you some food for thought, and perhaps helped you avoid some of the mistakes that I’ve made, then I am happy

    Bob Windmill

  2. Hi Bob,
    Really enjoyed reading about your journey and getting to read a bit more history about your motorcycle racing. Money and security can make you tend to err on the safe side can’t it and reading this, something I’ll try and bear in mind.

  3. Hi Angela,

    It’s good to hear from you again.

    I glad that you enjoyed this post. I think that it’s true that most of us regret missed opportunities rather the things that we’ve tried and got wrong.

    This doesn’t mean that we don’t need a bit of a sensible head on when making plans, just that we should look for the possibilities before we look at the problems.

    Thanks again for you comment

    Bob Windmill

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